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Meet the family living off grid in a yurt outside Motueka

A Dutch couple and their Kiwi kids love their off-grid life in an eco village outside Motueka, where one yurt just led to another

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Meet and greet

Tessa Hiebendaal, facility manager and massage therapist, Remko Ros, 46 woodworker, Kiri Ana Ros, 8, and Olle Manu Ros, 5, plus guinea pigs Woezel and Pip, and six hens.

Meet the family living off grid in a yurt outside Motueka

Many intrepid travellers reach our shores with plans for an exciting and memorable trip, but when Dutch visitors Tessa Hiebendaal and Remko Ros set foot on New Zealand soil in 2003, all set for a three-month tour, their lives were truly changed.

“We fell in love with New Zealand at the moment of touchdown at Auckland Airport,” reminisces Tessa. “Something mysterious stirred inside me, and that feeling has never left.

“After that first holiday in this beautiful, green, spacious land on the other side of the world, we wanted to come back and stay here for ever.” And after four years and several more visits, that’s exactly what they did.

Community living

In 2007, after a few seasons of apple picking in Hawke’s Bay, Tessa travelled to the South Island to search for a place to call home. She grabbed a copy of Organic NZ magazine moments before boarding the Cook Strait ferry, and read about a new community in Motueka Valley.

“They were looking for people to join them. Some moments in life are of great significance, and this was one of those. Something in that article resonated with me and I got in touch with them. From that moment on, everything fell into place,” says Tessa.

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The concept of this ‘eco village’ (called Te Manawa, ‘The heartland’) ticked all the boxes on the couple’s list: it had native bush, sea and mountain views and spring water and was situated in a fertile river valley.

Most importantly, there was a strong sense of community and a collective vision for the land surrounding it. “It felt like a great honour to become guardians of the land, even for a short time; sharing it with like-minded people and seeing the potential,” says Tessa.

When they arrived, their section was covered in wildling pines, obstructing potential views of the valley and presenting the first of many challenges that Tessa and Remko faced over the next 10 years.

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“We had to clear the land to be able to build and live there. That’s what we wanted and so that’s what we did.” To begin with, they were based five kilometres away while they cleared and prepared the site but, with winter approaching, they suddenly found themselves in desperate need of a temporary dwelling.

Yurt life

Due to the uncertainty of how they would eventually use their land, this temporary accommodation also needed to be transportable so they could take it with them when they moved to the eco village.

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“It had to be something reasonably affordable and comfortable to live in for the next few months – or years – all depending on the building process of our dream home on the new land,” says Tessa.

They didn’t need to look far for the answer: Mongolian round tents are a reasonably common sight in the Tasman area, and they instantly knew a yurt would be perfect for them.

The couple built their first yurt armed with downloaded instructions, limited building knowledge and only two tools – a drill and a saw. They drew inspiration from the traditional yurts used by the indigenous peoples of Mongolia, Turkey and Siberia, and embraced sustainability by using locally grown and milled timber, waterproof, breathable polycotton canvas from Tasman Canvas, and EcoWool insulation.

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When tested by chilly Motueka nights, the yurt proved to be solid, strong and cosy, and the couple were smitten. The texture and colourways of the canvas they chose were also intrinsically natural, which complemented the tones of the land and the couple’s vision for their property.

The heartland

A year later, during Matariki, Tessa and Remko welcomed daughter Kiri Ana into the world – and into their yurt. Six months later, the young family moved to their new heartland, Te Manawa.

“We happily lived in our single yurt for the next couple of years, observing the seasonal changes and the migrating patterns of the native birds,” says Tessa.

This accumulated knowledge of the rhythms of their environment allowed the family to design and create new outdoor spaces to both complement and protect the surrounding land. Tessa and Remko hand-dug their building platforms and used the excavated topsoil for the yurt’s living roofs. Granite and sand were used for building mixes and wall plasters. Local manuka and kanuka trees were carefully pruned to allow space for the structures.

In 2011, a second yurt was erected as their family grew to four and son Olle Manu was welcomed into the world.

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Off-grid lifestyle

By the time their second yurt went up, the family knew they had something special. “We were converted to this lifestyle,” says Tessa. “Simple, low-impact, mortgage-free and time-rich; we felt blessed.”

Sustainability is not just a lofty ideal but a way of life at Te Manawa.“We are off the grid and together we have installed a power system that runs on solar and hydro power,” says Tessa. “Our drinking water comes from a spring and is gravity-fed to our homes, and we have self-sustaining vege gardens and six laying hens.”

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Together with five other families, Tessa and Remko aim to regenerate the area’s 68 hectares of native bush, of which a significant amount is protected by the QEII Trust. Planting seeds is fundamental to this regeneration and locals and visitors alike get involved with regular planting.

The couple home-educate Olle and Kiri, and enjoy the closeness of the eco village and wider communities within the river valley.

Happy as they are

Te Manawa has become a place not only for the local community to enjoy, but also visiting family and friends who come to stay and depart feeling refreshed and inspired. This led to the idea of building a guest house, and soon a third yurt was erected. Recently Tessa and Remko have been welcoming Airbnb guests to experience their eco-friendly lifestyle.

Ten years after moving to New Zealand, the couple are still planning their permanent eco home – but they have come to love yurt life so much that a ‘proper’ solid house may only ever be a distant dream.

“We hope to continue to share this beautiful land with as many people as possible, to inspire and to plant seeds. We meet many interesting people from all over the world, and we learn from life every day.”

Words by: Tina Stephen. Photography by: Daniel Allen.

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